Last Friday, the pastors of Iglesia Ciudad de Refugio, the Revs. Juanita and Jose Lopez, celebrated the 40 years they have spent ministering at Glen Cove’s oldest Hispanic church.
The couple — married almost 51 years — first joined the church as interim pastors in 1978, when it was called Fuente de Salvación, or Fountain of Salvation. When they took over, Juanita, 74, recalled, the church regulars consisted of one couple and their granddaughter. “When the [old] pastor left,” she said, “everybody left.”
Two months later, they got a call from the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, through which they were ordained, and were told that they would be staying on as the permanent pastors of Fuente de Salvación. “When they found out we were here to stay,” Juanita said of the church’s congregants, “they started coming back.”
In 1983, the owner of the church building confronted Jose about a series of late mortgage payments. If he didn’t pay the landlord $4,000, he would evict them, Jose, who’s now 73, recounted. At the time, the church boasted a congregation of about 10. “I ex-plained to the people,” he said, “and started working to collect the money. In one month, I got $4,000 together.”
Emboldened by his success and the scrappiness of his parishioners, Jose told the landlord that he would pay off the mortgage — which had a balance of $8,000 — within a year. The landlord told him he was crazy. But the church held events, Jose said, and congregants made generous contributions. Eleven months later, he made the final mortgage payment.
Several years later, while Jose was away delivering guest sermons at churches in upstate New York, Juanita had a dream. She didn’t remember much, but when she woke up, the words “Ciudad de Refugio” — city of refuge — were rattling around in her head. When Jose returned, she told him, “The church needs a new name.”
With it came a new logo: a pair of white hands — God’s hands, Juanita said, the refuge — cradling a black skyline, the city. A man and woman are silhouetted in white against the buildings, and black shadows of a boy and girl stand in front of the adults.
Under a new name, the church continued its good work. Jose told a story in his native Spanish, with his daughter Brenda translating, about a man who had been dropped off at a Tuesday prayer meeting, drunk. Jose, who was leading the meeting, called the man up to stand in front of him. The man did so, though he wobbled a bit as he stood.
“I hit him in the stomach, and he fell down,” Jose said. “But when he got up, he was completely sober, and accepted Jesus as his lord and savior. Today he’s my son-in-law.”
Brenda clarified, “That’s my husband.” They have been married for five years.
“That’s something that affected my life,” Jose said.
Brenda corrected him. “That’s something that impacted all of us,” she said.
Jose is an evangelist, which means that part of his mission as a pastor is to take his message on the road, preaching in places that are grateful to have him, mostly in South and Central America. He has also been to Cuba, where Ciudad de Refugio “adopted” a local church, which it still provides with financial and material support.
Jose has also led missions to Venezuela, where he and his congregants helped locals build a church, and to an orphanage in Guatemala, accompanied by a doctor with a cache of vitamins and medical supplies, who examined the children and treated their maladies.
People in those countries, Jose explained, are more receptive to religion than the church’s American contingent. “Here, we go to doctors for healing,” he said. “In a country without great health care, you turn to God.”
While her husband is out ministering around the world, Juanita is charged with ministering on the home front. Gaitley Stevenson-Matthews, who has worked with the Lopezes to organize an annual multi-denominational bilingual Easter dawn service, said that Juanita’s pastoral style is compelling. “She’s a terrific storyteller,” he said. “You really get a sense of her. A lot of pastors, when they preach, they’re stuck on a page. She’s never stuck. She’s seldom behind the pulpit.”